In Spice-Laden Kerala, a Break From Urban India


At places like Pai Brothers, crispy, paper-thin dosas might be filled with duck masala or chocolate and cashews. At Dhe Puttu, a small restaurant chain started by the popular Malayalam film stars Dileep and Nadirshah, puttus — traditionally a breakfast staple of soft cylindrical steamed dumplings made from ground rice and coconut — have been pushed into fanciful forms that can take on the flavors of Spanish paella, a biryani or even an ice cream sundae.

We ate our last meal there before heading out of the city toward the vast tea estates and spice gardens that lace the Cardamom Hills of Kerala.

To get there, we spent nearly five hours in a van grinding our way up the steep hills of the Western Ghats, stopping only for plates of vegetable curry and glasses of fresh pineapple juice. The road narrowed as we worked our way past wildlife sanctuaries and forests of sandalwood. The oppressive mugginess of the city had lifted, giving way to weather cool enough that I considered digging out the one light sweater I brought. Tea estates cascaded down the steep valleys, their tight, trimmed shrubs looking as manicured as a formal English garden.

Manoj Vasudevan, a photographer who teaches tourism in Kerala and who has been exploring the mountains here for decades, was our guide. That included explaining the finer points of mountain driving in India, which required faith, acceptance and a good horn.

The strips of pavement hugging the mountainside were often only wide enough to hold one vehicle, but sometimes three would try to navigate a stretch at once. Horns were essential to blast our gentle warnings on blind curves. Inevitable traffic knots that brought traffic to a stop were solved when a driver or a passenger would hop out and calmly direct cars and buses to back up or edge around each other. Everyone would then head on without a harsh word or even a friendly wave.

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At Dhe Puttu in Kochi, a sweet and spicy take on puttu — traditionally a breakfast staple of soft cylindrical steamed dumplings made from ground rice and coconut.

Credit
Evan Sung for The New York Times

“We practice a kind of practical politeness,” he explained.

Many of the sprawling tea estates we passed are owned by Tata Global Beverages, which maintains 51 estates in India and Sri Lanka. We stopped for lunch at the Briar Tea Bungalow, a rambling, low-slung Colonial-style building northwest of Munnar that the British built on a mountain top surrounded by 2,500 acres of tea plants.

We waded out into hip-high tea bushes and hiked to where women armed with small hedge clippers spend the day trimming the very tips from the tea bushes. A day’s work brings in a little over $6, more if they can beat their daily quotas.

Soon, we were back on the road headed for the heart of spice country. Small spice gardens started to pop up the way “u-pick” apple orchards do in upstate New York. Some offer tours for a couple of hundred rupees, about $3. Others declare themselves to be organic, and have small shops where packets of vibrant ground turmeric, nutmeg and green cardamom pods can be had for prices that would make a cook used to prices at an American grocery store fall to her knees.

Touring spice gardens is a fairly new pursuit here, driven by an increasing appreciation of agriculture and cooking among tourists.

“Twenty years ago when I traveled this way there was not even a single place,” Mr. Vasudevan said. “Ten years ago there were maybe a few places. Now, they’re all over. Somebody started it then everyone started copying it because they saw that people were becoming curious to see how spices grow.”

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Cacao fruit at Thomas Puttampurakkal’s spice farm in Thekkady.

Credit
Evan Sung for The New York Times

And then there’s black pepper. From the time of the Roman Empire, people have been coming to Kerala for black pepper. Wars have been fought over it. The plants that produce the fruit are everywhere. Their thin green vines wrap around jackfruit, mango and coconut trees that grow with such abandon they don’t seem to need a bit of human effort to thrive.

Cardomom is a big money maker here, but black pepper remains the coin of the realm. Even though Indian pepper growers are fighting off cheaper production in countries like Vietnam, there are still plenty of wealthy owners who oversee vast plots of pepper plants. But in every village and small town, you can find someone who grows a little pepper and sells a few kilos when a bill comes due or there’s a wedding to fund. About 30 percent of the people who live here are involved in the spice trade, Mr. Vasudevan estimated.

Ms. Gomez and I found our way to a small, organic spice garden in Thekkady where Thomas Puttampurakkal, a retired Kerala police officer in his 80s, tends to pepper vines that twist around jackfruit and nutmeg trees growing in what seems to be an agricultural system with no real pattern or structure.

He uses only elephant dung for fertilizer. Pepper, he explained, is all about terroir. The best grows naturally here in the high elevations, the green berries protected by the shade until they ripen.

The green pepper berries become black pepper after they spend four or five days in the sun. Those same green berries can also produce white pepper, whose pungency is softened by a long soak in water before they are dried and their husks removed.

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Diners at Dhe Puttu in Kochi.

Credit
Evan Sung for The New York Times

Ms. Gomez and I wandered through Mr. Puttampurakkal’s spice garden like kids in a toy store. We rubbed curry leaves between our fingers and dug up turmeric roots. We searched around the bottom of willowy cardamom stalks 12 feet tall, looking for green buds. We sucked the custardy pulp off the seeds inside cacao pods, smelled clove buds and peeled a bit of bark from a cinnamon tree.

We found a nutmeg tree and pulled down a round piece of fruit the size of my palm. Someone had a knife, so we sliced it open to reveal a glossy dark gem covered in a lacy red coat. The seed is nutmeg, the red covering mace.

In the little shop Mr. Puttampurakkal runs, I bought bags of the small, local black Malabar peppercorns locals call tribal pepper and another of the fat, fragrant peppercorns called Tellicherry, named after the famed growing region in Northern Kerala.

I bit into one. It tasted like citrus and flowers. In a split-second, heat overtook the flavor, like hot perfume in my mouth.

Ms. Gomez wandered in, her hands filled with nutmeg. “You have no idea how excited I am,” she said.

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Rava dosa, a porous version with cashews, at Pai Brothers in Kochi.

Credit
Evan Sung for The New York Times

Mr. Puttampurakkal was laughing, probably at us. It was hard to tell. It didn’t matter.

I had made it to the Cardamom hills. Ms. Gomez was right. It was God’s own country. Or, at least, a cook’s.

If You Go

Kerala is always warm, but can get downright hot and muggy from March to May. December through February is reliably dry and cooler, and also more crowded. The monsoon season comes in May and can last until November. The mountains with their spice gardens and teas estates are always cooler than the coast. It’s relatively easy to rent a car or van with a driver, or take a small tour bus to the spice and tea regions. Car rentals are available, too.

Tea fans can visit the Briar Tea Bungalows (V-363, Kannan Devan Hills Village, Talliar post, Idukki; teabungalows.com/talayar-valley-bungalow-munnar/) in the Talayar Valley in Munnar, where you can pick your own tea onthe 2,500-acre estate.

For accommodations in spice country, try Spice Village (536, Kumily Thekkady Road, Thekkady, Kumily; cghearth.com/spice-village), which has an Ayurveda spa and whose stand-alone huts are well-appointed and named after spices.

At the shore, the Marari Beach Villas (North S.L Puram, Mararikulam, Mararikkulam, Alappuzha; mararibeachvillas.com) offer uncrowded beach access and a resort feel.

In the greater Kochi area, select from a dozen styles of dosa and watch them get made by fast-moving cooks at Pai Brothers (TD East Sannidhi Road, Shenoys, Ernakulam).

Dhe Puttu (NH Byepass, Edappally, Ernakulam, Kochi) specializes in an upscale, modern take on puttu, another classic South Indian dish.

Correction: October 23, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the type of Christianity introduced by the Portuguese to the region. It was Latin Catholicism; other forms of Catholicism had been practiced previously.

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